If there is one area of neurology that has the general public paying attention, it’s concern over dementia. With recent headlines reading “Blood Pressure May Hike Dementia Risk,” and “High Blood Pressure ‘Linked to Dementia,’” the public has a fresh target for that attention.

But as we know, headlines often blow the real story out of proportion. They can put physicians in the position of reframing what patients think is a much bigger breakthrough than it really is.

These headlines are referring to the recent scientific statement from the American Heart Association and published in their journal, Hypertension. A team of experts in hypertension and dementia assessed the current evidence on that relationship. They also looked at the impact of anti-hypertensive treatment on outcomes. This literature review yielded three key conclusions:

  • Evidence suggests mid-life hypertension influences cognition later in life.
  • Late life hypertension doesn’t have a clear influence on cognition.
  • Evidence is inconclusive that anti-hypertensive treatment improves cognition.

The authors went on to say that there was insufficient data to make evidence-based recommendations, but judicious treatment seems justified.

While this statement points the way for the next wave of research into the effects of anti-hypertensive treatment on late-life cognitive function, it changes little in practice.

This makes sense to physicians, who understand the code words used in the headlines. “May” and “linked” really mean: there could be something here, but we need to study it more. But the typical media consumer doesn’t interpret these headlines this way. They are bombarded with headlines ranging from sensational to heart wrenching to completely false. It’s probably too much to ask the public to interpret the subtleties of medical evidence as conveyed in a five-word headline.

As frustrating as such news can be for physicians, it does offer a wonderful opportunity for patient education. Perhaps a conversation about what this statement tells us will better prepare a patient for the next headline. Health News Reviews offers a toolkit to help consumers analyze healthcare claims. These resources are an excellent place to start when explaining what the headlines really mean.

For better or worse, the media has inserted itself into the doctor-patient relationship. We can choose to let it be a thorn in our collective side, or we can make it a tool for patient education.